Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Improvise and Survive

One of my clergy friends began a sermon with an interesting story about an unfortunate experience of the Norwegian violinist, Ole Bull. Ole was giving a concert in Paris when the ‘A' string of his violin snapped. This marvelous musician continued, undaunted, by transposing the composition and completing the concert on just three strings!!

You may not know much about violins, or understand the courage and skill necessary in order to transpose the music written for a four-string instrument so that it can be played on three strings. But, I dare say that most of you do know what it is like to suddenly lose someone or something you really counted on and have to begin immediately to improvise and compensate in order to keep on going. The ‘A' string in life can snap in a hundred ways at the most inopportune times. Then we must quickly decide whether we will improvise and go on, or just drop our instrument and walk off the stage.

People we count on die. Jobs we thought to be secure are lost. Life savings are lost on a deal we thought could not fail. A child brings home a load of trouble that changes his or her life, and ours. A crippling illness, a legal mistake, the betrayal of a friend - you name it - and it can happen. Yet all is not lost. Life is not ruined, even though at the moment, it may feel that way.

There is a larger picture than what we see in what has happened to us at the moment. And there come a time for us all in which we must look for the big picture into which the lesser events of our lives fit. If we cannot find the big picture, or if someone else cannot help us find it, then the concert may be over. If failure were fatal, none of us would be here today. It is very important to see that whatever happens to us at any given time is really only a small part of the total picture and to school ourselves in that understanding of reality. It would be much better if we could adopt and integrate this philosophy of the unexpected into our lives before the ‘A' string snaps in the middle of an important concert; but out of respect for reality, I would have to say that most of us are not likely to understand the value of improvisation until the circumstances of life force us to understand it. It is difficult to rehearse the specifics of the unexpected, but it helps to expect the unexpected. Be prepared to improvise and keep your mind on the big picture.

I do not want to belittle the significance of that time in your life when the whole world turned dark. God knows it can unhinge us and ripple across every relationship in our lives. It can leave a scar, and sometimes an open wound. It has its place in the scheme of things, but it is only a part of the total scheme. All parts should be seen in the light of the whole. It is the big picture that counts.

It is important to have some plan for our lives. It is axiomatic that those who fail to plan, plan to fail. Yet things never work out exactly as we plan. Circumstances change. Friends we counted on leave us in one of the many ways in which someone can go away. It is important to dream and plan and think about the future, but be careful not to build your plans so solidly that there is no flexibility. Always leave room for circumstances beyond your control. Listen to these lines from Kipling's "If": "If you can dream and not make dreams your master; if you can think and not make thoughts your aim; if you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same......"

Life is uncertain. It is wise to learn how to improvise and transpose, so that you have a plan "B" in place in the event your"A" string snaps in the middle of an important performance in your life.